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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Four: One Ring to Rule Them All


Sources of the Elven Tongues

Book One of The Lord of the Rings introduces the reader to Tolkien's most famous linguistic inventions, the two elvish languages. His admiration for the beauty of Finnish and Welsh influenced the creation of Quenya and Sindarin respectively. Quenya was supposed to be the more ancient tongue, a sort of "Elvish Latin," used on special occasions not only by elves but also by highly civilized men, and even by scholar-hobbits like Bilbo. Sindarin was the living language of the elves.

The first part of this handout invites students to compare Sindarin and Welsh. Next, an excerpt from the Kalevala ("Land of the Heroes"), the national epic edited by Elias Lönnrot, allows the class to observe how Finnish influenced Quenya. The final third, another Kalevala selection, features a concept much beloved by Tolkien: the battle fought with song rather than sword. The song-duel motif also occurs in the final Unit Four handout, as well as in Tom Bombadil's confrontation with Old Man Willow.

"The Light Before the Sun"

It was Tolkien'’s fond hope that The Lord of the Rings would be published in tandem with The Silmarillion, his grand compendium of myths and tales from the First Age of Middle-earth. Late in 1951 it appeared he would get his wish: Milton Waldman, an editor at Collins, expressed an interest in issuing the two books as a set. "The Light Before the Sun" is excerpted from a lengthy document (Letter No. 131) in which Tolkien tried to demonstrate that The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings were an indivisible whole. This selection offers such a riveting account of the "Primeval Jewels," it’s surprising to learn that Waldman eventually lost enthusiasm for Tolkien's scheme.

Students may be puzzled by several terms. Valinor is the land of the angelic powers known as the Valar. In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is the final battle that dooms humans and gods alike. When the author mentions "the sub-creative function of the Elves," he is evoking a highly personal idea. Tolkien viewed God as the Primary Artist of Creation, but because humans (and Middle-earth immortals) are made in the image of God (Ilúvatar), they can bring forth poems, paintings, and other artistic works (including gems in the case of elves). These "secondary" compositions indicate a "sub-creative" gift that is continuous with the divine.

How Beren Fulfilled His Vow

A particularly affecting moment in Book One occurs when Aragorn responds to Sam's request for "a tale of the old days" by singing of the elf-maiden Lúthien and the mortal hero Beren. This handout allows students to sample the exciting and moving Saga of Beren and Lúthien, which constitutes the core of The Silmarillion. References to these legendary lovers appear throughout The Lord of the Rings, and Lúthien's direct descendants include Elrond, Arwen, and Aragorn himself.

The setup finds Tolkien again fusing fairy tale motifs with the conventions of heroic epic. After his people suffer a disastrous defeat by the Great Enemy Morgoth, Beren spends the next four years as an outlaw. Eventually his wanderings bring him to the kingdom of Doriath, where he encounters the beautiful Lúthien dancing in the woods. Beren ardently pursues the maiden, whom he calls Tinúviel (Nightingale), and at last she falls in love with him — but her father, King Thingol, cannot abide a union of immortal elf and mortal man. The king sets Beren an impossible task: "Bring to me in your hand a Silmaril from Morgoth's crown; and then, if she will, Lúthien may set her hand in yours" (The Silmarillion, page 167). Our selection begins with Beren's arrival at Angband, Morgoth's stronghold, accompanied by Lúthien, who has fearlessly joined the quest.

After chanting the lay, Aragorn summarizes the poignant final events of the saga (The Lord of the Rings, page 189): "Yet at last Beren was slain by the Wolf that came from the gates of Angband, and he died in the arms of Tinúviel. But she chose mortality, and to die from the world, so that she might follow him; and it is sung that they met again beyond the Sundering Seas, and after a brief time walking alive once more in the green woods, together they passed, long ago, beyond the confines of this world. So it is that Lúthien Tinúviel has died indeed and left the world, and they have lost her whom they most loved."

Unit Four Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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